Madame X. Scandal of a portrait. Paris of the Belle Époque in 1884.

Madame X, Scandal, portrait, Belle Époque, Paris,
Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent 1883/1884. Original at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Madame X. or the exciting life in Paris of the Belle Époque

Virginie Amélie Avegno (1859 – 1915) was born into a family of French-speaking Creole planters in the Parlange plantation near New Orleans. During the Civil War, her father was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. In 1867, she moved to France with her mother at the age of eight and they quickly climbed the social ladder. She married Pierre Gautreau, a Parisian banker who was a figure of the “good society” in Paris at the time.

Virginie Avegno became a lady known for her beauty, always in fashion, standing out for her hourglass corset figure and her surprising bluish-blue skin. The trick was to powder her skin with rice powders mixed with ground lavender, dye her hair with henna, and outline her eyebrows.

Madame Pierre Gautreau, Antonio de la Gandara, Portrait,
Madame Pierre Gautreau, painted by Antonio de la Gandara (1861–1917) in 1897 (The smartphone version).

She was admired for her elegance and extravagant style. She also attracted much loving attention that did not discourage, and her extramarital affairs were well known and the subject of scandalous pages in tabloid newspapers and pamphlets. One of her lovers was Dr. Pozzi, whose portrait had been painted by aspiring young portraitist John Singer Sargent, a former pupil of French master Carolus Duran. Sargent, eager for popularity through Virginie’s notorious reputation, asked Dr. Pozzi to introduce him to her, resulting in an invitation for Sargent to Brittany, the chateau de los Gautreau, Les Chênes, where Sargent made 30 pencil, watercolor and oil sketches for a portrait of the lady that fascinated him.

She posed for three paintings by notable 19th-century painters, as well as for Sargent, Gustave Courtois (1891) and Antonio de la Gándara (1898). It was Sargent’s presented in the Salon of 1884 as “Portrait of Madame ***”, the most famous. The haughty pose and the too revealing dress hurt the French sensibility being considered an indiscretion when suggesting the reputation of the lady, which was taken for a scandalous outrage.

A French critic wrote that if one stood before the portrait during his exhibition at the Salon, “he would hear every French-language curse”-the French would tolerate adultery but never openly admit it, as the portrait seemed to imply.

John Singer Sargent, Madame X, studio, Paris
John Singer Sargent in his studio in Paris 1885. In the background the portrait of Virginie Avegno as Madame X.

The adverse criticism of the finished portrait at the Paris Salon of 1884 so damaged Sargent’s reputation that he decided to move to Britain.

Gautreau died in Cannes on 25 July 1915. She was buried in the Gautreau family crypt at their Chateau des Chênes in Saint-Malo, Brittany.